AFC East: Baltimore Ravens

Live blog: Patriots at Ravens

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
2:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New England Patriots' visit to the Baltimore Ravens. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4:15 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 
Tom Brady  and Joe Flacco AP PhotoSunday's matchup between the Patriots and Ravens has playoff implications for both teams.
Whenever the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens meet, there is always something at stake. Sunday's clash at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, a rematch of the past two AFC Championship Games, is no different.

The Patriots (10-4), winners of three of their past four games, can clinch their fifth straight AFC East title with a win or a tie. The Ravens (8-6) can move one step closer to earning their sixth straight playoff berth with a victory, or they could watch their postseason hopes take a severe hit with a loss.

New England is the NFL's best team in December, winning 17 of its past 19 games in that month. The Ravens, however, are one of the best teams at home, posting a 39-8 record (.830) at M&T Bank Stadium since 2008.

ESPN.com NFL reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jamison Hensley (Ravens) break down the showdown between these AFC powers:

Jamison Hensley: Mike, everyone knows the impact the loss of Rob Gronkowski has had on the Patriots' red zone offense. How will Tom Brady and the Patriots turn it around inside the 20-yard line?

Mike Reiss: Jamison, they were 1-for-4 in the red zone against the Dolphins, and now they go up against one of the NFL's best red zone defenses. That's not a great formula. One way to look at it is that if rookie receiver Josh Boyce holds on to one makeable catch in the end zone on third down in the first quarter, and the Patriots cap off the comeback like they had in prior weeks with Danny Amendola making a tough catch in the end zone on the final drive, we wouldn't even be talking about this. Instead, we'd be talking about their late-game magic. Then again, if tight end Michael Hoomanawanui didn't make a remarkable one-handed grab in the end zone for a 13-yard score, they might have been 0-for-4. So it's just a reminder that the margin for error is thin, which is also what the red zone is all about.

As for the Ravens, how are they doing it? To go from possibly out of the playoffs to a chance to win the AFC North with two wins to close out the season? Give us a feel for how this has happened.

Hensley: The Ravens have been riding a strong defense, kicker Justin Tucker and Joe Flacco's late-game heroics to get back into the playoff race. To be honest, I had written off the Ravens after they lost at Cleveland in the beginning of November. But this team has fought back to win four straight and are playing with more confidence than at any point this season. There has been a lot of criticism that Flacco hasn't lived up to his $120.6 million contract. While he'll never put up the elite quarterback numbers, he finds ways to win. His four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season is second only to Brady. And Flacco has led a game-winning drive the past two games. He is banged up right now after taking a hit to his knee in Detroit on "Monday Night Football."

This could lead the Ravens to run the ball more with Ray Rice. He has struggled all season but has shown some signs of being more productive over the past two games. The Ravens might want to try to attack the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense as well. What's been the biggest problem for the Patriots in stopping the run this year?

Reiss: A strong run defense is usually a staple of a Bill Belichick-coached team, but this year is different. A significant factor has been season-ending injuries to starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29, Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6, knee) and every-down linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13, pectoral muscle). That's a direct hit at the heart of a run defense, right up the middle, sort of like a baseball team losing its top pitcher, catcher and shortstop. Since that point, they've had to scheme around things; this staff has been coaching its tails off and the players have been doing their best while sometimes being asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. The other part of it is situational. For example, against Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Nov. 24, they played a sub defense the entire game and Denver was content to run against it and put up big numbers. That was a case where the Patriots gave up something (run defense) to gain something (better pass defense), which is what they've had to do this year because of the key losses.

Let's get back to Tucker a little bit, because I think it's a fascinating story. Patriots fans obviously remember Billy Cundiff from the AFC Championship in the 2011 season. Tell us more about Tucker and what he's done to become such an integral part of the team in replacing Cundiff the last two years. His postgame interview on "Monday Night Football" was one of the classics.

Hensley: Tucker has been the Ravens' Most Valuable Player. When you're saying a kicker is the MVP, you're usually not talking about a team contending for the playoffs. And the Ravens wouldn't have the hottest kicker in the NFL right now if not for that memorable -- or is that forgettable? -- miss by Cundiff in the AFC Championship Game. That led the Ravens to have an open competition at training camp the following year. Tucker clearly won the battle and hasn't tailed off since. What separates Tucker from other young kickers is his ability to convert in the clutch. He has six game-winning kicks in 30 career games. His confidence borders on being cocky, and he isn't afraid to show off swagger. Not too many kickers dance after making field goals. But that confidence has been big for the Ravens. Before that 61-yarder on "Monday Night Football," he went up to coach John Harbaugh and said: "I got this."

Speaking of confidence, what's the state of mind for these Patriots compared to past Pats teams at this time of the year? The Patriots are still fighting for a top seed, but there seems to be a lot of doubt nationally because of the close calls with Houston and Cleveland in addition to the loss at Miami.

Reiss: This Patriots team isn't short on confidence, but as Brady said, it's a club that doesn't have a lot of margin for error. They can beat anyone in the NFL, but also lose to any team in the NFL. To sum it up, this is a resilient team that has been hit hard by injuries to key players, and they fight and claw for 60 minutes, so if a team is going to beat them it's going to have to be a knockout. With two weeks remaining in the season, the Patriots are still in play for a first-round bye but also could face a Week 17 scenario where they need to win to even qualify for the playoffs. That's reflective of how this season has unfolded for them -- a lot of close calls that could have gone either way.

With the amount of turnover on defense, how have the Ravens been able to sustain on that side of the ball?

Hensley: The defense has been very good this season, ranking in the top 10 in yards allowed (ninth), points given up (seventh), third downs (third) and red zone (fourth). Without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this is a different defense but not an inexperienced one. Daryl Smith has played better than Lewis did last season, making an impact against the pass as well as the run. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil has been an upgrade over Paul Kruger. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has gone from a first-round disappointment to the team's best defensive back. If this defense wants to be great, it has to find a way to finish better. Over the past three games, the Ravens have allowed four touchdowns in the final three minutes. That challenge is heightened when going against Brady, one of the NFL's best comeback kings.

Live blog: Jets at Ravens

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New York Jets' visit to the Baltimore Ravens. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 

Double Coverage: Jets at Ravens

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
10:00
AM ET
Muhammad Wilkerson and Ray RiceGetty ImagesMuhammad Wilkerson's Jets stuff the run, but Ray Rice will be coming off a 131-yard performance.

The Baltimore Ravens play host to the New York Jets in a showdown that has more meaning than another reunion with safety Ed Reed. These teams are battling for the final playoff berth in the AFC, even though neither has a winning record. Welcome to parity in the NFL.

The Jets (5-5) currently hold the second wild-card spot, based on a tiebreaker with Miami. The Ravens and five other teams with 4-6 records are one game behind the Jets in the playoff race.

Here's how ESPN.com Jets reporter Rich Cimini and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley see this Week 12 matchup unfolding.

Jamison Hensley: The unbelievable stat with Jets quarterback Geno Smith is the 20 turnovers. How much of those interceptions and fumbles can be blamed on him? And, even though he is expected to start, what are the chances he finishes the game?

Rich Cimini: Smith’s 20 turnovers lead the league. If you’re keeping score at home, it’s 16 interceptions and four lost fumbles. I could go on and on with statistical stuff, but the bottom line is he’s making poor decisions. He’s not reading safeties well. He tends to throw late. At times, he "leaves the game plan," according to the coaches -- meaning he forces things, especially late in games. He doesn’t handle adversity well. If he struggles early, there’s a good chance it’ll be a bad game. That said, he’s a rookie with intriguing physical skills. He has a terrific arm. The Jets aren’t ready to write him off, but it’s getting down to crunch time and they can’t survive if the turnovers continue. Matt Simms has finished the past two losses, both blowouts. If Smith is a train wreck in the first half, it wouldn’t shock me if Rex Ryan turns to Simms again.

What’s wrong with Joe Flacco? I mean, 13 interceptions. That’s Geno-like.

Hensley: Rich, that's the most surprising part of Flacco's season. You can debate whether Flacco became an elite quarterback by leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl, but what Flacco has always done since coming into the league in 2008 is protect the ball. He'd never thrown more than 12 interceptions in a season before throwing his 13th this season -- and it's still November. There are a lot of factors for the increase in turnovers, starting with a routinely collapsing pocket, but I don't think he will throw an interception Sunday. Flacco typically plays better at home and has thrown just of his two interceptions at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. Another reason is that the Jets don't pick off passes, at least not this season. Their five interceptions are fewer than all but four teams in the NFL.

Of course, that could change with Reed in the Jets secondary. Reed returns to Baltimore for the second time since leaving the Ravens. He goes to the Jets after being a nonfactor in Houston. After seeing Reed play one game, what kind of an impact might he have with New York? Is the Jets' pass defense still vulnerable?

Cimini: Surprisingly, Reed started in his Jets debut and played 59 of 67 snaps on defense. Playing mostly as the single-high safety, he had no virtually no impact against the Bills. He didn’t make any glaring mistakes, but he also didn’t have any plays on the ball. They had him blitz twice, the first time ending with a long touchdown pass over Dee Milliner in zero coverage. Reed was late in deep coverage on a 43-yard touchdown pass over Antonio Cromartie, but it wasn’t an easy play, as he was coming from the opposite hash. I liked the Reed signing. The price was right and, in time, I think he’ll help with their issues on deep balls. The real problem with the pass defense is the cornerback play. Milliner is experiencing rookie growing pains, and Cromartie is having a disappointing season.

The Ravens are familiar with Jets coach Rex Ryan, who was Baltimore's defensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008. Is there still any carryover from Ryan's days with the Ravens to this season's defense?

Hensley: The tradition of getting after the passer and showing no fear in the red zone remains strong with the Ravens. Like Ryan, defensive coordinator Dean Pees will come after quarterbacks, whether it's with a safety or cornerback Lardarius Webb from the slot. The Ravens have had at least two sacks in 18 straight games, the NFL's second-longest streak since 1990. This defense also is stingy when backed up to its own end zone. The Ravens are the NFL's top-ranked red zone defense, giving up a touchdown just 32.1 percent of the time from inside their own 20-yard line. This is a big advantage for Baltimore because the Jets are tied for 22nd in red zone offense, reaching the end zone just 50 percent of the time.

Going back to Ryan, the Ravens are 2-0 against their former defensive coordinator. How would you evaluate his performance this season?

Cimini: All things considered, I think Ryan is doing a nice job. Despite having a turnover-prone rookie at quarterback, the Jets are still in the thick of the wild-card chase. Sometimes, I wonder how he’s doing it. The Jets have the worst turnover margin in the league (minus-14) and the second-worst points margin (minus-85), yet they’re 5-5. The primary reason is the defense. Ryan lost his best player (Darrelle Revis) and integrated seven new starters -- no easy task. They have the No. 1 run defense in the league, thanks to a young and promising line. I think Ryan needs to win at least two or three more games to keep his job. A win over his old team would really help his cause.

But it’s always tough to knock out the champ. Do you think the Ravens have enough heart to get back in the race and defend their title?

Hensley: Honestly, it's not about heart, because the Ravens play hard. It's more about their ability to weather the storm, which was literally the problem last week with a tornado watch in Chicago. The Ravens have come up short late in games because the other team has been making the plays and the defending champions have not. It's why the Ravens are tied for the league lead with four losses by a field goal or less. They have to figure out a way to put away teams in the fourth quarter. If they don't do that Sunday against the Jets, the Ravens' hopes of repeating will be over.

NFL32: Love is in the air

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
4:30
PM ET

Mike Hill and Chris Mortensen discuss NFL "couples" that should stay together or break up; Adam Schefter breaks down Joe Flacco's contract situation; and the NFL32 crew discusses how the Cardinals should handle Kevin Kolb's contract.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are the most interesting stories on "Championship Sunday" in the AFC East:
  • Who will advance to the Super Bowl from the AFC title game between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens?
Morning take: I stopped making predictions after a "stellar" regular season. But I expect this to be a close game that lives up to the hype. Both teams are deserving to get to this point.
Morning take: The Dolphins can save nearly $10 million in cap room if they do. That seems like a no-brainer to add to the immense space Miami already has. The Dolphins really have a chance to make a move.
Morning take: Morris was out of the NFL in 2012. However, he has 15 years of NFL experience and has a talented group to work with.
Morning take: Idzik grew up around the game and has a wealth of experience. The Jets are a messy job, and Idzik wants to clean it up.

Video: Can Ravens knock off Patriots?

January, 15, 2013
1/15/13
7:00
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Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith discuss the Patriots being favored by 9.5 points over the Ravens.

Blogger Blitz: Containing Ray Rice

January, 15, 2013
1/15/13
5:00
PM ET

AFC East blogger James Walker talks about the Patriots' past success at limiting Baltimore running back Ray Rice's production
Brady-LewisUSA TODAY SportsTom Brady and Ray Lewis face off for the second year in a row in the AFC title game.

It’s not the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning showdown many expected in the AFC Championship Game. But the intense rivalry between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens is just as exciting.

For the second consecutive year, these familiar foes will meet at Gillette Stadium for the right to represent the AFC at the Super Bowl. Last season, New England escaped with a 23-20 victory after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard chip shot that could've forced overtime.

Is this year’s rematch the last stop for Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis? Or will Brady be denied his sixth career Super Bowl appearance? AFC East blogger James Walker and AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley examine the possibilities.

James Walker: Jamison, I feel like it was just yesterday when we watched Billy Cundiff botch an otherwise great playoff game at Gillette Stadium. You had the feeling there was still unfinished business between these two teams, even after they played in the regular season. I think it’s fitting that the Ravens and Patriots got back to this point and meet again with so much on the line. How different are the Ravens now compared to the team that made last year’s AFC title game?

[+] EnlargeBilly Cundiff
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonKicker Billy Cundiff and the Ravens walked off the field disappointed in last season's AFC title game.
Jamison Hensley: Well, James, the Ravens don't have Cundiff or wide receiver Lee Evans anymore, which is a big difference from last season. But that hasn't been the only change. The Ravens have really undergone an image makeover in the 12 months since losing the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. Last year, and actually for the past 13 seasons, the Ravens were a team defined by defense. The offense has always been in the passenger seat when it comes to the team's championship drive. That's not the case anymore. Even though the Ravens' defense finished No. 17 in the league, it has been ranked in the 20s for most of the season. The Ravens are relying on Joe Flacco and their offense more than ever. Baltimore won half of its games this season by scoring 30 or more points and was 5-0 when Flacco threw for more than 300 yards. As he's been all season, Flacco is the X factor for the Ravens. I'm sure he's going to throw the ball deep against a Patriots defense that has given up some big plays this season. Everyone knows Tom Brady is championship caliber, but is that defense at that level yet?

Walker: New England’s defense is tricky to gauge. Is it championship caliber? No. The Patriots are not going to win a championship solely based on their defense, which was ranked 25th this season. But it has improved, largely due to its young players. Rookies like linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard have really added to New England’s physicality. The Patriots are ninth against the run and ninth in points allowed. It’s the “chunk” passing plays where New England has the most trouble. I think the Ravens can have success by attacking the Patriots vertically. New England has done a good job this season of scoring touchdowns, pushing the pace on offense and holding opponents to field goals. Before you know it, opponents are down 17 or 20 points. Obviously, the Patriots’ offense is a hot topic thanks to Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. He provided New England some easy bulletin-board material by saying he doesn’t respect the Patriots’ “gimmick” offense. The Patriots will use that as motivation, even if they don’t admit it publicly. Speaking of motivation, how big is the Ray Lewis factor and how will it impact this game?

Hensley: There will always be a debate on whether Ray Lewis is the greatest middle linebacker of all time. But there's really no argument when it comes to Lewis being the greatest leader in NFL history. James, as you know from your years of covering the AFC North, Lewis has a way of motivating players and getting them to elevate their game. That's a big reason the Ravens had a top-10 defense from 1999 to 2011. His impact is being felt this season, too. The Ravens are 7-1 with Lewis and 5-5 without him. When Lewis announced before the playoffs that this was going to be "his final ride," that became the emotional rallying cry for this team. Do I think everyone is playing for Ray Lewis? Not at all. Joe Flacco wasn't thinking of Ray Lewis when he threw that desperation touchdown pass in Denver. But the Ravens are certainly playing inspired football. It helped the Ravens beat Peyton Manning and they're hoping it helps them to knock off another future Hall of Fame quarterback. James, what has impressed you the most about Tom Brady's game this year?

[+] EnlargeNew England's Dont'a Hightower
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDont'a Hightower is one of the fresh faces helping the Patriots' defense.
Walker: I’ve always argued that Brady is better than Manning, especially this time of year. People will always debate their statistics. But the biggest difference is Brady is 17-6 and Manning is 9-11 in postseason games. I think that’s telling. There is no other quarterback I’d rather have in a one-game scenario than Brady. What’s impressed me most is Brady is 35 and showing no signs of slowing down. Brady even took on more responsibility this season, running a high-tempo, no-huddle offense more often, and he flourished. Brady, in my opinion, is in a class of his own among the final four quarterbacks. Flacco’s performance last week silenced a lot of critics, but he is 0-2 in AFC title games. Jamison, Flacco is in a contract year. Is this the season he gets over the hump in the conference championship game?

Hensley: If Evans could've held onto that catch in the end zone, Flacco would've already been over that hump. Just like last season, I expect the Patriots will look to shut down Ray Rice and force Flacco to beat them. Flacco has been a dangerous downfield passer this postseason, averaging 20.4 yards per completion. I'm not saying he's in Brady's class, but Flacco is playing at a higher level right now. It's not about Flacco stepping up in a contract year, either. He knows he's going to get paid whether it's a long-term deal or the franchise tag. The reason Flacco is playing better is because he's more experienced. Of course, as I say this, I also want to point out that Flacco is the streakiest quarterback in the league. So, do the Patriots get the good Flacco or the bad one? We'll find out Sunday. James, how do you see this game playing out?

Walker: You’re right, Jamison. Flacco has followed up some good performances with some bad ones. But I really like the sense of urgency from both teams. Baltimore has Lewis making his last postseason run and Brady looks like a man on a mission to qualify for his sixth Super Bowl appearance and maybe a fourth title. I decided to stay away from firm predictions after the regular season. AFC East blog readers were getting upset that I was hitting on most of my picks. My final record for the season was 40-12 picking division games. So I’m going to pass. But as I wrote last weekend, Brady was winning Super Bowls when Flacco, Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick were teenagers in high school. The quarterback advantage is in New England’s favor, which makes the Patriots the favorite of the four remaining teams.

Hensley: If the Ravens and Patriots played last month, my prediction would’ve been New England in a rout. But something has happened to the Ravens since the playoffs began. The Ravens are the big underdog once again, and that will only fuel their desire to prove themselves. Four of the past five meetings between Baltimore and New England have been decided by six points or fewer. This is going to be another close game. And, just like last season, the AFC Championship Game will come down to the final drive.

More thoughts on Patriots going 16-0

August, 15, 2012
8/15/12
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Last month we pointed out a thought-provoking story from our friend Pete Prisco of CBS Sports. Prisco had the guts to predict the results of all 16 games for each NFL team and came to the conclusion that the New England Patriots will finish the regular season undefeated.

This week I ran into Prisco at Miami Dolphins practice and followed up on his bold prediction. Prisco then brought up a good point.

"Point out a game they're expected to lose,” Prisco told me.

It was a valid response, because as I went down the schedule in my head, New England was the favorite in just about every game.

But here are a few potential pitfalls:

Sept. 23 at Baltimore Ravens

Thoughts: This is a rematch from last season's classic AFC title game. Yes, the Ravens won’t have reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, who is out with an Achilles injury. But I can tell you from experience that Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium is one of the NFL’s toughest venues for road teams. The Patriots will need their “A” game to beat the Ravens in their home stadium. This may end up being the toughest game on New England’s schedule.

Chances of losing: 60 percent

Sept. 30 at Buffalo Bills

Thoughts: The Bills finally got over the hump last year by beating the Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Buffalo was the only AFC East team to beat New England and certainly won’t be intimidated. It also hurts that this game is coming just one week after a physical, high-profile showdown with Baltimore.

Chances of losing: 40 percent

Oct. 7 vs. Denver Broncos

Thoughts: The Patriots obviously will be the favorites at Gillette Stadium. But the opponent always is a threat when Peyton Manning is the quarterback. Manning and Tom Brady have had some classic battles in the past with a lot on the line. This will be another big game of two AFC contenders.

Chances of losing: 30 percent

Nov. 22 at New York Jets

Thoughts: Say what you want about the Jets, but they have given the Patriots a tough time since hiring head coach Rex Ryan. Up until last year’s sweep, New York was a thorn in the Patriots’ side. These two teams have developed a nice rivalry the past few years. So any time the Jets host the Patriots, you know New York is going to be up for this game. Still, the Jets most likely don’t have enough firepower to keep up with New England this season.

Chances of losing: 30 percent

Dec. 10 vs. Houston Texans

Thoughts: I really like this Houston team. I think the Texans are one of New England’s biggest competitors in the AFC, along with the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Houston has the offense to keep up with the Patriots and a better defense. Even at home, this won’t be an easy game.

Chances of losing: 40 percent

Dec. 16 vs. San Francisco 49ers

Thoughts: The 49ers are another team that is a contender. They have a tough defense, solid running game and an improving group of receivers after adding Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in free agency. However, the 49ers are on the road and I still don't have a lot of confidence in Alex Smith. I have a hard time seeing Smith outdueling Brady at Gillette Stadium.

Chances of losing: 30 percent

Barring significant injuries, the Patriots will probably be favored in all but one game this year, the one at Baltimore. But I still don’t see the Patriots going undefeated. That’s a very hard thing to do and requires focus, consistency and a little luck for 16 consecutive weeks. I think the Patriots will slip up and lose at least two or three games this regular season.

Video: Ravens' Pollard rips Patriots

January, 24, 2012
1/24/12
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Ravens safety Bernard Pollard says he hopes the Giants thrash the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Countdown Live: AFC Championship Game

January, 22, 2012
1/22/12
12:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the AFC Championship Game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 3 p.m. ET. See you there.


Unlike the NFC, the AFC playoff bracket went according to form and has the top two seeds meeting in the conference title game Sunday. The New England Patriots (14-3) and Baltimore Ravens (13-4) have been the best two teams in the conference from start to finish.

But only one team can advance to Indianapolis to play in Super Bowl XLVI. That is where AFC East blogger James Walker and AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley come in to examine the matchups and pressing issues with the Patriots and Ravens.

James Walker: Let’s start with the quarterbacks, Jamison, because I think this is where the Patriots have the biggest advantage. Tom Brady is playing at an unbelievable level. He tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes against a pretty good Denver Broncos defense. I’m not sure Baltimore -- or any defense -- has an answer for the Patriots’ passing game right now. Behind Brady, the Patriots are averaging 40.5 points in their past four games. New England’s offense is peaking at the right time. If New England scores early, that puts an enormous amount of pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to respond. I doubt a Brady versus Flacco shootout is a game Baltimore wants to play.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Michael Ivins/US PresswireTom Brady was masterful in the Patriots' playoff rout of Denver.
Jamison Hensley: You’re definitely right about that, James. Flacco has thrown for fewer than 175 yards in his past three games. That’s like one half for Brady. Flacco gets a lot of criticism because he isn’t consistent -- and that’s true. He has flashes when he looks like he’s a top-10 quarterback, guiding a last-minute touchdown drive at Pittsburgh and leading the Ravens back from a 21-point deficit against Arizona. Then, there are times when he looks like he is among the league’s worst, like when he doesn’t complete a pass in two quarters against the Jets. But the Ravens have never had to rely on Flacco in the playoffs. That’s the time of the season when the Baltimore defense thrives. There’s a huge disparity between Brady and Flacco. But there is an even bigger one between the defenses of the Patriots and Ravens, who are ranked No. 3 in the NFL in fewest yards and points allowed.

James Walker: We’ve both watched Baltimore’s defense up close for years, and I’ve always marveled at its consistency. The biggest thing is you know what you’re going to get from Baltimore’s defense on Sunday. I really have no idea what to expect from the Patriots’ defense. I did see with my own eyes last week a group that is capable of playing well. The Patriots actually have the top-rated defense in the playoffs, although it’s just for one game. I won’t go overboard with the Patriots stopping Tim Tebow. Any playoff team not named the Pittsburgh Steelers could do that. (I had to jab your AFC North brethren.) But I’ve seen too many weeks in which New England looked awful defensively and gave up tons of yards. The Ravens’ offense should have the advantage as long as they stick with tailback Ray Rice, who has killed New England in the past. Speaking of the past, Jamison, how much stock do you put in Baltimore’s previous playoff victory against the Patriots in January 2010?

Jamison Hensley: Just like you can’t go overboard on one game for the New England defense, you can’t go overboard with that playoff game. Both teams are different from that game two years ago. The Patriots didn’t even have Wes Welker for that one. The biggest lingering effect is that the Ravens have confidence that they can win in New England. Few teams have ever beaten Brady on his home turf in the playoffs, and Ray Lewis and the gang know they can do it, because they did it before. Of course, that game turned on the first offensive play from scrimmage when Rice ran 83 yards for a touchdown. And that’s something that hasn’t changed for the Ravens. Rice is key to the Ravens winning. Baltimore is 9-0 when Rice carries the ball at least 20 times. He has to be on the mind of every New England defender.

James Walker: There’s no denying Rice is to Baltimore what Brady is to New England. The performance of both players will probably determine the outcome of this game. You astutely pointed out Welker’s absence from the January 2010 playoff game. Two additional players not in that game were tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who were drafted the following April. Two seasons later, the pair completely change the dynamics of New England’s offense. The Ravens’ defense is great. But I’m looking down their roster and I’m having a lot of trouble finding linebackers who are fast enough and defensive backs who are strong enough to stop New England’s star tight ends. The Ravens might opt to double one -- usually Gronkowski -- but I don’t think they have an answer for both. After watching the Ravens' defense all season, Jamison, what strategy do you think they will employ?

Jamison Hensley: The Ravens played mostly zone against Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, but they can’t do that against Brady. He would pick them apart. Baltimore has to go to man coverage to be successful. The defender to watch is linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. He’s known as the team’s special-teams ace, but he plays an important role in the nickel defense. The Ravens have contained some of the top tight ends they’ve gone against in San Diego’s Antonio Gates (two catches for 31 yards) and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis (four for 38 yards). The problem is, the Ravens haven’t faced a team with two quality tight ends like Gronkowski and Hernandez. Baltimore’s best bet is to get pressure on Brady. That starts with Terrell Suggs, who will test both of the Patriots’ offensive tackles.

James Walker: Suggs has been a monster this season. I also think Brady might be Suggs’ least-favorite quarterback, so there won’t be any lack of motivation there. But I noticed something important in both AFC divisional games that should be mentioned. Baltimore didn’t get a single sack against Yates and Houston, and New England held Denver without a sack, despite facing a defense with two of the league’s top pass-rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Maybe that was more scheme last week on Baltimore’s part, because defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano usually gets after it. But New England legitimately stuffed Denver’s pass rush for four quarters with an up-tempo offense that used a lot of half-huddle/no-huddle and quick throws to Gronkowski, Hernandez and Welker. I think you’re going to see the Patriots speed up the tempo again against Baltimore, especially at home where the crowd is quiet and communication on offense is easier.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Suggs
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireKeeping Terrell Suggs away from QB Tom Brady will be a priority for New England on Sunday.
Jamison Hensley: As we’ve seen so far in the playoffs, home field has really been an advantage. Only one home team (Green Bay) has lost so far this postseason. The Ravens have had their trouble on the road this season, losing at Seattle and Jacksonville -- teams they should’ve beaten. But Baltimore has a great track record of winning on the road in the playoffs. The Ravens have won at Miami, Tennessee, Kansas City and, of course, New England under coach John Harbaugh in the postseason. How the Ravens handle the atmosphere on the road will be one of many keys in this matchup.

James Walker: The Patriots and Ravens played all season for this gigantic opportunity. New England just won one more game to force the road to Indianapolis to go through Gillette Stadium. But I think either club would represent the conference well and has a great chance to win the Super Bowl. Either way, Jamison, just make sure one of us brings that Lombardi Trophy back to the AFC side, where it belongs. I was kind of tired of that "Discount Double-check" thing NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert kept doing in front of us for the past year.

Jamison Hensley: I hear you. We’ll just have to wait until Sunday to see whether Bill Belichick’s hoodie or Flacco’s Fu Manchu mustache will be advancing. History says this will be a close game. Three of the past four meetings between the Ravens and Patriots have been decided by six points or fewer. For coverage leading up to the AFC Championship Game, everyone can check back to the AFC East and AFC North blogs all week. And, James, it will be just a little colder in New England than Miami, so remember to pack a jacket.

Countdown Live: Jets-Ravens

October, 2, 2011
10/02/11
6:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com NFL experts as they break down the tough AFC match up between the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:20 p.m. ET. See you there.

Newsome, Harbaugh on WR Lee Evans

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
9:08
PM ET
The Baltimore Ravens made a significant trade Friday to acquire receiver Lee Evans from the Buffalo Bills. Baltimore gave up a fourth-round pick in 2012.

Here is what the Ravens' general manager and head coach said about Evans:

Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome

"Our fans will remember him from his outstanding game (six catches, 105 yards, three touchdowns) against us last season. He's a quality veteran receiver who stretches the field and gives us a significant downfield presence. He's the type of person you want on your team. He brings leadership and maturity to the locker room."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh

"We're excited about getting Lee Evans. He's a proven player in this league and a quality person who will fit in well on our team. We’re all looking forward to going to work with him."

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